Captain Gail Harris, the highest-ranking African American female in the U.S. Navy, visited SVSU on Thursday, March 14, for a Women’s History Month lecture, “Take Command and Win.”
Harris was the first female and the first African American for every job assignment she accepted. Her memoir, “A Woman’s War: The Professional and Personal Journey of the Navy’s First African American Female Intelligence Officer,” served as the basis for her talk.
Bethany Alford, the Military Affairs director, was excited to work with Multicultural Student Affairs, Residential Life and The Office of Student Life to host the event.
“Together, we believed that Captain Harris’ intersectionality would allow her to reach a wide audience,” she said. “From a Military Student Affairs perspective, we wanted to be part of this effort because of her unique military experiences and proven ability to break barriers.”
During the lecture, Harris stressed that anyone can use her experiences and lessons to succeed. She also gave credit to Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, the youngest naval operations chief in the Navy’s history, for opening doors for women and African Americans.
“When I joined the Navy, there were race riots on aircraft carriers,” she said. “Women were restricted in the rank they could pass. … Zumwalt said, ‘I know we’re not perfect, but why don’t you join us and make us better?’”
Her father supported her dreams of joining the Navy as a child. She credits the support Zumwalt and her father gave her for helping
her overcome the obstacles she faced as an African American woman.
“My father had been in the Army in the aftermath of WWII when it was still segregated,” she said. “He could have burst my bubble. Instead, he looked at me and said, ‘This is America. You can be whomever you want to be when you grow up.’”
Throughout her career, she faced prejudice and sexism. She told the audience, to succeed, she could not let that discourage her.
“If someone had a problem with me being black or a female, that’s their problem,” she said. “(I didn’t) make it mine.”
Based on her experiences in the Navy and conversations with her father, Harris also learned not to discount people who were prejudiced against her.
“Do not write someone off because of some thing they said to you,” she said. “They might not have known better at the time.”
Another key to success she learned was the importance of persistence.
“Persistence, I learned, was the trait of successful people,” she said. “Within you is the stuff of greatness. You’re capable of doing more than you think.”
Harris ended her career as the head of the intelligence committee focusing on cyber-attacks. For the two years before she took over, the committee had not solved most of the problems it had set out to.
“Some of the challenges I found when I took over for the intelligence committee started with no one wanting to be bothered with me,” she said. “I put my ego aside and focused on the task at hand.”
Under her leadership, she was able to solve the problems the committee had spent two years on in two weeks. From the experience, she learned the importance of mentorship and acting as a team.
A question and answer session followed her lecture.
Alford believes the lecture inspired attendees to “rise above adversity.”
“I hope that some of Captain Harris’ experiences will resonate with the military-connected students,” she said. “I realize that our military-students may be facing challenges, such as transitioning from the military, balancing reserve obligations with school and family or finding their tribe at SVSU. I am hopeful that this presentation provided some direction and encouragement in all of those areas.”
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